Who: Indianapolis Colts (11-5) vs. #3 seed New England Patriots (12-4)
What: AFC Divisional Playoffs
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA
When: Saturday, January 11th at 8:15 PM ET
TV Channel: CBS
Since 1994, the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts have combined for 19 division championships. The Patriots hold the slight edge with 10-9, but these two teams have become playoff fixtures behind the strong play of their respective quarterbacks. The Patriots hold a 2-1 edge in head-to-head postseason competition, defeating the Colts in 2003 and 2004, while the Colts were victorious in a 38-34 shootout in the 2006 AFC Championship. The rivalry is no longer centered around Tom Brady and Peyton Manning but, instead, the Colts’ Andrew Luck appears poised to follow in the footsteps of these Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
Despite a season of much adversity, which included the loss of both star tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots won their fifth consecutive AFC East title and are now vying to qualify for their third straight Conference Championship. The Colts, on the other hand, are riding the momentum of their first playoff victory in the Andrew Luck era. The exciting 45-44 come-from-behind victory last week over the Kansas City Chiefs shocked the football world: the Colts appeared to be eliminated when facing a 28-point deficit in the third quarter, but stormed back behind Luck’s big second half. The QB phenomenon finished the game with 443 passing yards and four touchdowns, consistently connecting with T.Y. Hilton (224 yards and two touchdowns). While the offense was on full display, the Colts defense has left a lot to be desired.
“It’s unlikely that the Colts defense – the same unit that was torched by Alex Smith last week – is going to be able to shut down Tom Brady, so the offense will have to score points. After all, the way the Colts beat Peyton Manning’s Broncos was to outscore them – and the defense played well that day, even. The same will likely be true this weekend. Whereas Tim Tebow’s Broncos or Matt Schaub’s Texans (both of which Shaughnessy mentioned in his column) weren’t built to win shootouts with the Patriots, Andrew Luck’s Colts are more equipped to do so. Perhaps they’re still not perfectly built to do so, but they stand a much, much better chance than the other two. Andrew Luck just lit up a good Chiefs defense for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns and put up 45 points on them. He put up 33 points on perhaps the best defense in the NFL, the Seahawks defense. He put up 27 on the 49ers defense.”
As Wilson alludes, the Colts have proven capable of scoring against the best defenses in the leagues. Furthermore, they were also able to outshoot the Denver Broncos and their league-leading offense in the regular season. Therefore, despite 7-point underdogs, it is hard to discount a team that had regular season victories over the Denver Broncos (12-4), San Francisco 49ers (12-4), and Seattle Seahawks (13-3).
The key to the Colts’ success against these top teams was the ability to hold onto the football and their plus-13 turnover differential in the regular season. They finished the season with a league low 14 turnovers and capitalized on opponents’ mistakes. However, against the Chiefs in the Wild Card game, the Colts dug themselves in such a deep hole due to four turnovers. The Colts cannot afford to turn over the ball four times, let alone two or three, against Belichick, Brady, and the Patriots. Zuri Berry (@zuriberry) of The Boston Globe’s Boston.com (@BostonDotCom) discusses the focus the Colts must place on the turnover category:
“It [turnovers] was a glaring part of Indianapolis’s comeback victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Though they stormed back from a 28-point second-half deficit — the second-largest comeback in NFL postseason history — the Colts’ 45-44 win last Saturday was fraught with four turnovers, three of which were interceptions thrown by quarterback Andrew Luck, a drastic departure from the ball security the team displayed all season…With the Patriots on tap in the next round of the playoffs, Indianapolis is trying to button up that particular issue against a team that feasts on opponents’ mistakes.”
As the Patriots are one of the best teams at forcing turnovers, ball security will be one of the keys to this game. They also do a good job of protecting the ball and the offense is one of the best at moving the ball down the field. Matt Grecco (@mgrex03) of SB Nation’s Stampede Blue (@StampedeBlue) discusses the strength of the Patriots offense:
“The one ‘weakness’ I see in the Patriots Offense is on 3rd/4th down, where they rank just 17th. How can they be so good driving the ball if they are a little below average on 3rd/4th down? Very good success on 1st/2nd downs and moving the chains before reaching 3rd down. The Colts have to get them in 3rd down situations if they hope to win…The Patriots have very good Average Starting Position on both sides of the ball. Remember how I mentioned Edelman earlier? It’s on Pat McAfee and the punt team to not let him get free. Really the answer is to just not punt at all, but if the Colts have to, a good day by McAfee will really help the Colts chances…The Patriots run the ball well, and I expect them to run it early and often, especially if Dobson can’t play. I know the Colts have to prepare for Tom Brady (for real this time), but the Patriots have the 2nd best RB Success rate in the NFL, and a whole stable of backs to run at the Colts. I expect a lot of running then Brady hitting some play-action.”
Overall, the Patriots’ offense thrives due to its balance, fluidity, and strong special teams. While the Colts are well equipped for a shootout, they simply cannot afford to let Tom Brady control the pace of the game and time of possession.
Although these two teams mirror each other in many senses, the advantage has to go to the more experienced and polished Patriots squad led by Belichick and Brady. Furthermore, the home field advantage is crucial, as the Patriots were a perfect 8-0 at home during the regular season. However, with Luck on their side, the Colts have proven that nothing is impossible and certainly feel capable of shocking the football world once again.
Peter Stein (@peterWstein) is a regular contributor of NBA, NCAAF, NFL, and MLB coverage to the movoli blog.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in movoli blogs are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of movoli.
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